Tough times for Southeast Asia’s migrant workers – Nikkei Asian Review/FT – republished by the FT, Nikkei Asian Review’s sister/brother publication, on 12/3/18

Women sending money back to the Philippines from a remittance counter inside Lucky Plaza, a mall popular with the Filipino expat community in Singapore ( Simon Roughneen)

Countries struggle to prevent abuse without hindering business

JAKARTA/SINGAPORE — A year ago two young female migrant workers in Indonesia, including 26 year old Indonesian Siti Nurbaya, were cast at the center of an international murder mystery when they were arrested by police for their alleged role in the audacious, Le Carré-esque assassination by poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was carried out despite the usual bustling morning crowd at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.

Preying on the women’s perceived vulnerability as relatively-poor migrant workers at the margins of society, defense lawyers contend that North Korean agents duped their clients into unwittingly carrying out the murder by bluffing they were being recruited for a series of made for TV pranks.

As the trial of Nurbaya and her alleged accomplice from Vietnam rolled on last month in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur, another case was emerging that highlighted the perils facing migrants in Malaysia.

Adelina Sao died in a Penang hospital on February 11 after she was found with head injuries and infected wounds on her limbs, succumbing after two years in Malaysia as one of around 400,000 foreign maids working in the country.

Her grim demise was a reminder of the vagaries of life for some migrant workers in the region — neighbors of the family accused in Sao’s death said she was forced to sleep in the porch beside the dog.

Indonesia’s government reacted to Sao’s death by threatening to ban Indonesians from working as domestic servants in Malaysia. “A moratorium is important so we can restructure our (migrant workers) employment system to prevent cases such as Adelina’s from happening again,” Indonesia’s ambassador to Malaysia Rusdi Kirana told media on February 15.

Despite several other such cases in recent years — including one in which a Malaysian couple accused of starving a maid to death in were themselves sentenced to death in 2014 — Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi described Sao’s death as an “isolated case” and said that he hoped that Indonesia would not ban its citizens from going to Malaysia to work as maids.

But a ban is being discussed by Indonesia, which from 2009-11 stopped its nationals from travelling to Malaysia to work as maids or servants after an earlier series of horrific abuse stories.

However any new proscription could just lead to more illegal or undocumented migration, or worse — such as human trafficking. “I don’t think that moratorium will solve the current problem, even could make the situation getting worse, the flow of undocumented migrant workers,” said Daniel Awigra of the Human Rights Working Group, a Jakarta NGO.

The two countries have been going around in circles trying to iron out a deal on migrant workers rights in Malaysia, with disagreement on issues such as time off, access to healthcare and minimum wage rights.

“I think the recent case has made Malaysia feel guilty,” Awigra said, hinting that Malaysia may now be more inclined to resolve some of the issues that left Adelina Sao so vulnerable to the inhuman whims of her employers.

But with a GDP per capita of around $10,000 compared with Indonesia’s $3,604, Malaysia will remain a magnet for migrants from not only Indonesia but countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal.

In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10 country regional organisation, economic disparities drive migration patterns. According to International Labor Organization figures, there are almost 7 million Southeast Asian migrant workers based in the region — mostly in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia and mostly coming from Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Millions more Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais and Vietnamese have emigrated elsewhere in Asia or to wealthy Gulf or Western countries.

Singapore’s 2016 GDP of $52,960 was the ninth-highest in the world and the highest in ASEAN, according to International Monetary Fund figures. Much lower are sending countries such as Cambodia on $1,230 and the Philippines on $2,924, while Malaysia’s relative per capita GDP means that though it is home to millions of migrants from less wealthy neighbors, it is also a source of emigration, particularly to Singapore.

Indeed migrant workers make up around a third of Singapore’s workforce, with sectors such as construction particularly dependent. They do jobs that “Singaporeans don’t want to do because they are dirty, dangerous, of low status and/or poorly paid,” said John Gee, chair of the research sub-committee at Transient Workers Count Too, a migrant worker support NGO in Singapore.

That dynamic — of immigrants doing the dirty work for locals — is also true of the region’s other destination countries Malaysia and Thailand.

Sending countries also depend on emigration. Not only is it a so-called “safety valve”– meaning the exodus of millions of people who otherwise would be languishing jobless at home, a potential source of political unrest — migrants send part of their salaries home to sustain parents and siblings.

Pedro de Vasconcelos, manager of the financing facility for remittances at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said that the majority of remittance flows, which amount to around $450 billion per year globally according to IFAD research, go on “basic daily needs, addressing poverty, putting food on the table.”

“This includes Asian countries, [such as the] Philippines, in the Mekong Delta,” he said.

Around 10% of the Philippine GDP is made up of remittances, almost 60% of which is sent from Filipinos working in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to the Asian Development Bank Institute. Within the Southeast Asia, Malaysians in Singapore account for almost two-thirds of Malaysia-bound remittances, while Thailand is the main source of remittances to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

But with hundreds of Indonesians and Malaysians having found their way to Iraq and Syria to join the so-called Islamic State, there are concerns that Southeast Asia’s labour migration flows could offer camouflage to returning fighters trying to navigate around the region.

The vast numbers of migrants scattered around the region offer potential conduits for financing terrorism, according to Indonesian officials from the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (PPATK), who estimated that $763,000 was transferred from foreign countries to fund terrorism in Indonesia between 2014 and 2015.

PPATK head Kiagus Ahmad Badaruddin told a November 2017 counter-terrorism meeting in Malaysia that remittances were seen by Indonesian security officials as “high risk,” with the flows, often of small, hard to track transfers, abetted by the use of social media and messaging apps otherwise used by migrants to stay in touch with family and friends at home.

“The authority acknowledges the potential use of alternative money remittance and currency exchange providers as channels for supporting the (terrorist) movements,” Kiagus said, as reported by Channelnewsasia.

In mid-2017, Jakarta-based terrorism research organisation the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict warned that a minority of Indonesian maids in Hong Kong had been “radicalised” — forming online relationships and funnelling money to IS members, and in some cases ditching their jobs and heading for Iraq or Syria themselves.

Away from home, in some cases underpaid and mistreated, some of the women found friendship and solace in religious associations set up by clerics, prompting IPAC to suggest that the Hong Kong authorities need to be careful about which clerics are given visas. The PPATK later said it had identified about 45 Indonesian maids in Hong Kong as having formed links with compatriots in IS.

To paraphrase, migrants, like the poor will always be with us. Given that Southeast Asian’s growing economies are committed to greater integration as part of the ASEAN Economic Community, more migration is likely over the coming years.

After a decade of on-off negotiating, on November 14 last year the region’s governments signed the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The deal was meant as the pinnacle of the Philippines’ 2017 chairing of ASEAN.

The final draft came after wrangles between recipient and sending countries, the latter, Indonesia in particular, earlier seeking stronger protections for migrants.

The document is non-binding on signatories, meaning that it will be up to countries themselves to address or prevent abuses or negotiate bilateral deals on migration.

While the ASEAN consensus has been criticised for its lack of legal enforcement measures, it has been praised for at least laying the bedrock for progress. While “some of the more progressive features have the caveat that they are subject to national laws,” according to Nilim Baruah, migration specialist at the International Labour Organization, the deal should “nevertheless be welcomed” as it “could result in actionable commitments.”

But the absence for now of regional standards means that sporadic crackdowns on undocumented migrants or bans on citizens from working in particular sectors or countries will remain a feature of the region’s human traffic.

And while the region’s economic integration plans include measures to more easily allow skilled or educated migrants move around, “the AEC does not have plans to facilitate the migration of low- or mid-skilled migrants,” as noted by the World Bank in a 2017 report on labor migration in Southeast Asia.

That appears counter-productive, given that sectors such as construction in Singapore and fisheries in Thailand appear to depend on migration. The World Bank suggested too that more labor market integration could boost the region’s wider integration prospects, but recipient countries are likely to resist allowing freer flows, citing concerns that wages could be driven down.

These concerns might be misplaced, however. While the World Bank report claimed that “low-skilled workers who have skills that are similar to those of migrant workers are at a greater risk of experiencing less positive or negative impacts” the case of Thailand showed that immigration’s impact on wages “is modestly negative for local workers with less education, but positive for those with more education.”

Other looming threats to migration come from technologies such 3D printing and robotics spread, which are increasing the prospect of “reshoring” production from manufacturing hubs such as Thailand to OECD countries.

In 2016 the ILO said that over 50% of all jobs in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam are “at high risk of displacement due to technology over the next decade or two,” mentioning sectors such as hotels and restaurants, wholesale and retail trade, as well as manufacturing.

The prospect of manufacturing job losses in recipient countries could force citizens there to seek employment in sectors currently dominated by migrants, putting further pressure on recipient governments to restrict migration from those countries that, for now at least, are sources for the maids and waitresses, fishermen and construction workers working across wealthier parts of Southeast Asia.

*My contribution to a jointly-authored article. Published & amalgamated version at 

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